Heroes of the Revolution: Cuban Ingenuity Keeps American Classics Running

SOUTH OF HAVANA, CUBA –The white ’57 Dodge convertible has perfect banana yellow underpanels with tall matching fins, even though its passenger compartment is all but gutted, save for the steering wheel.

The driver sits on a small wooden crate as he steers past fields of trees fruiting mangos as well as avocados.

He pulls into a cluttered yard with a tin-roofed shed and two small cinder block houses.

Ducks, chickens, and goats all make a racket, as children, followed by adults, come out to see who has arrived. All one can see of Alfredo, the breadwinner for both households, is his slate blue overall legs and sneakers. His back presses not against a dolly but against dirt as he works under the red body and fins of a four-door ’56 Dodge, which was built three years before Fidel Castro came to power.

Alfredo, 33, has been working on cars since he was eleven. His first job, of course, was in a state-owned shop, as by then all private enterprise on the island had long ended.

But things had begun to change by the time Alfredo turned twenty-three, when he began working for himself abajo del agua, or illegally under the water. Although he remains submerged, Alfredo has clients among some of the most discerning classic-car owners in Cuba. Some people like to go fishing. “I like fixing cars,” he explains, “and I like it when my customers are satisfied.”

Cars spanning the decades from the Great Depression to the Cuban Revolution await his care. In the yard is a black ’36 Chevy with skinny whitewall tires, broad running boards, and huge, round, free-standing headlights.

Beneath the barn’s falling roof is a ’49 Dodge convertible, its bench seats restored with creamy buttermilk leather smuggled to the island from Mexico. Next to the Dodge is a ’52 Chevy adorned with a shiny chrome swan. Both later models are painted only with sky blue primer.

Since Castro’s takeover in 1959, Cubans have managed to keep such vehicles running against all odds. Entirely cut off from trade with the United States and living on a communist-run island that prohibited, until recently, nearly all private economic transactions, Cubans have not enjoyed easy access to any consumer goods, let alone American automotive parts. The mechanics who have found ways past that handicap are among the most ingenious people anywhere. Take Alfredo. He compared American and Soviet engine blocks when looking for parts for the former Moscow planners were apparently so impressed by the innovations coming out of Detroit at the dawn of the industry’s golden age that they began copying the designs, and Alfredo discovered that many old Soviet trucks had engine blocks similar to those on many old American cars.

The pistons of a Soviet GAZ-51 truck, for one, are interchangeable with those of many early-fifties Chryslers.

“I learned this myself,” says Alfredo. “I took out each part and studied it, -he adds, holding up two matching pistons, one Russian and one American.”

Alfredo runs his operation like a prohibition-era moonshine still, and his example is now spreading like dandelions across the island. The soil has only been moistened by recent economic reforms. Although the Cuban Communist Party remains firmly in control of the country’s political affairs, Castro finally began loosening the reins over economic transactions in 1989, and then relaxed them more in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s, dollars have slowly inundated the island, and anyone who can manage to attain them no easy task can now buy everything from disposable diapers to spark plugs.

The economic reforms have been accompanied, too, by a dramatic increase in state corruption, as Cubans pilfer government stockpiles like never before. Diesel fuel, which costs thirty-five U.S. cents per gallon in a legal, government-regulated transaction, can cost as little as five cents a gallon on the black market. While the profiteers risk possible incarceration, their cost for the stolen fuel is nearly zero. In this way, one can now buy anything from sheet metal to GAZ-51 parts dirt cheap. Of course, while widening informal economic transactions only make it easier to restore vintage automobiles, the pace of change overall raises many questions about the future of an island that has lived with a command economy for nearly four decades.

But to try and voice an answer would be dangerous, a risk most Cubans would still rather avoid. “You can swim safely if you keep your mouth closed,” explained another mechanic, Delfín Matos Ortíz. “But if you open your mouth, you may only drink in some water and drown.”

Unlike Alfredo, Ortíz operates legally and pays taxes. He has no choice because he is far better known. As early as 1962 it was apparent to Ortíz, a former shipbuilder, that Cubans would have to fabricate their own engine parts to keep their American cars running. He spent six months painstakingly testing the metal composition of piston rings and taught himself how to make them. Today Ortíz, a great-grandfather, is still doing what he has done for decades, skillfully crafting piston rings for old American engines.

“Every problem has a solution,” he says. “I feel best when I am doing challenging work.” As his wife joyfully serves tea, Ortíz displays some rusted iron tubes and, next to them, several shiny new rings that are tagged for different clients. How does he get from old iron pipes to those? “Well,” he says, “it took me some work to figure it out.”

Back in 1962, just months before the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the Cuban missile crisis, it became clear that the island and its northern neighbor were no longer going to trade goods. Could Cubans make their own piston rings? Ortíz decided to try. He brought some original rings to a few nearby university friends, who tested their chemical composition while he made ring molds, first out of wood and then out of metal. Relying on the same grapevine that is essential to everyone on the island, Ortíz made deals for equipment and materials. “There was a nickel and chrome factory,” says Ortíz. “They needed seals. I needed nickel.”

It took him about six months before he finally started producing rings that held up under pressure. Word of his craft spread fast. By 1964, Ortíz was producing engine rings for many people, although some were having trouble installing them. So he printed up a single-spaced, two-sided instruction sheet. Ortíz doesn’t just make piston rings for cars. He has made them for all sorts of gasoline-powered engines, and his reputation is so impeccable that his services were once requested by Castro himself. Regardless of what one might think of his strategic vision, the now gray-haired Communist leader has always been an incurable micro-manager, often intervening personally to make even the most mundane decisions. Back in early 1991 at a Politburo meeting, Castro learned that an old gasoline-powered generator in a Havana hospital had long been idle because its rings were shot. “What can we do?” he demanded. A Politburo member from Ortíz’s hometown of Santiago de Cuba told him about the mechanic and his skills.

The Communist Party flew him to Havana. “I spent three months on it,” he says. Though not paid for his time, Ortíz ate and slept at the hospital. It was a job, he adds with a self-effacing grin. “I did it.” Since then, Ortíz has been back in Santiago, quietly going about his business while living with his wife near their five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. He is not sure what their future will be or what kind of political and economic system they will live under. But he doesn’t expect his own life to change. “As long as there are old cars here, I’ll continue making parts for them,” he says.

A generation younger, Edis de la Torre is among the few people willing to talk openly about politics, and that may be because he remains loyal to the Communist Party and its revolutionary ideals. “In the United States,” he notes, “the [vintage] cars would belong to rich people.” De la Torre has restored many vehicles for his family’s personal use, and he belongs to a community that transcends politics. What binds them is the enthusiasm they share for their automobiles and the common hurdles they have each needed to clear. “We are in solidarity with each other,” De la Torre says. But how do you keep the old cars running without easy access to anything? “No single place to buy parts exists,” he says while slowly shaking his head. There has not been one in Cuba since the early Sixties. “Instead I have had to find them through the grapevine.”

Fellow car owners, mechanics, government workers, party officials, and others have all helped De la Torre obtain parts for every vehicle he has maintained since La Revolución. Choosing models that he thought might last, De la Torre has owned five American classics, one Renault, and Russian motorcycle. When I met him, he was working on his latest, a ’52 Ford. But instead of selling this one after restoring it, as he has the rest, De la Torre is planning to drive a taxi.

This will be a new undertaking, since he has resigned from his abysmally low-paying government job. The Ford was owned by only one other man, De la Torre adds proudly, an architect who bought it back in ’52 directly from the dealer.

De la Torre has just finished the sky blue body, and it looks smooth. The six-cylinder engine, too, sounds clean. The block is original, as is the green vinyl rear bench seat, and the -FoMoCo- markings are still imprinted on the master cylinder. The wiper motors are also factory issue, working off suction generated by the carburetor. But appearances are deceiving. De la Torre points out that the carburetor was made by Ford in Argentina, the twelve-volt battery in Mexico, and the generator in the former Soviet Union.

While he is a self-taught mechanic, Julio, a 65-year-old grandfather, is a trained professional who got is start even before the Cuban revolution.

Just one month after D-Day in World War II, Julio, then only twelve, got his first job working in a car repair shop. He later became an electric motor specialist in his brother’s shop, which remained open for a time even after Castro took power. But by 1967, Castro launched a revolutionary offensive that nationalized nearly all remaining private property: It forced his brother’s shop to close. After that, Julio went to work for the state as an electrician.

Today, he knocks on doors as an unlicensed freelance mechanic, doing far more than just wiring for a growing number of car owners here and there in Havana. And he is revered by many for the patience he brings to each job. When we talk, Julio has just finished rebuilding the transmission of a ’48 Buick. It has a relatively small, straight-eight engine that Julio has also tuned.

Julio hopes to one day open his own repair shop. But only dollars are taken for taxes and rent. “Sure, I would like to open a shop,” he says. “But I don’t have the means to do it.” Julio, like De la Torre, is a taciturn man. Each is the kind of guy who avoids trouble. That’s the only way most people survive in cities like Havana, where the Communist Party, though giving them more room to roam, still tries to rein people in as if they were horses.

But elsewhere in Cuba, even right outside Havana, people like the Fernández brothers are already running loose. Oh, and they love speed. Alberto, the second-oldest and clearly the “alpha dog” of his siblings, peels out in the middle of a two-lane highway and then does fishtails in a teal ’58 Ford Thunderbird convertible, just to show off. It has a dual exhaust and a loud, bubbling V-8. It’s scary to watch him weave around opposing lanes of traffic especially since he’s just downed a few beers.

Finally, he gets off the road and turns off the ignition. He takes another can of beer, shakes it up, and sprays it. The Fernández brothers don’t bother about appearances. Take their Ford, a mean-looking T-bird with its convertible top long gone, revealing a rusted metal frame. Nor does it have any frills. No taillights, no headlights, not even a grille. No wipers. And inside? Nope, no dash.

There is little above the sheet metal floor but a makeshift seat. In fact, the T-bird’s only aesthetic distinction is its original chrome spoked wheels. Another original part that is long since gone is the double-barrel American carburetor. Alberto says that he and his brothers have installed a more efficient Soviet carburetor in the Thunderbird to save on gasoline. But they keep the American one safely oiled and stored and sometimes still install it for special occasions.

For racing, Alberto says, grinning. Sometimes we challenge them, sometimes they challenge us.

He adds without irony: “Yeah, for money.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Letter from Havana: Gays, Catholics, and Transvestites in the New Cuba

Che Guevara would have been puzzled by the joy of this past Christmas in Cuba, the first time this traditionally Catholic island has officially celebrated the holiday since the revolution. But Christmas isn’t the only thing that might confuse Che as 1999 begins, marking the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Imagine him walking into, say, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No. 12, a Communist Party meeting hall in central Havana. Back in the old days — meaning anytime while Cuba’s economy was still being subsidized by the Soviet Union — he might have found party loyalists gathered beneath its stucco arches discussing what it would take for an aspiring individual to become a truly selfless communist or what Che called “The New Man.”

There was certainly a new man down at CDR No. 12 one sweaty Friday night last year. Calling herself “Dianna,” she wore a retrograde, psychedelic multicolored dress with gold glitter while waving a plastic fan by her face to keep her blue mascara from running. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun with a gaudy plastic ornament, at the center of which was a rose. Dianna, one of 12 contestants waiting to perform in a transvestite lip-syncing competition — now held at CDR No. 12 twice a year — fretted back stage behind a curtain made of plastic sheets painted black.

Facing the stage, wooden benches were filled with people of all ages and genders. Behind the curtain and backstage area, families with children perched atop what remained of the CDR’s crumbling rear wall and nearby falling buildings. Everyone waved whenever a BBC camerawoman panned them. Organizers of the event tested the sound system, briefly playing a song by Pat Benatar in Spanish. The festive mood was intensified by warm rum sold in plastic cups.

“This doesn’t have any political significance,” explained “El Rey” (The King), the master of ceremonies. A big, bearded man wearing a long-sleeve, ultramarine shirt, he declined to further identify himself. “This is a natural development that has finally come,” he went on. “Everything has its moment.”

But it wasn’t long ago — certainly within the last five years — that Cuban Communist Party officials harassed, arrested and even imprisoned transvestites and homosexuals, whom they considered “social deviants” who do society no good. Not any more. With nearly all Cubans fuming about their declining standard of living, the party needs to release lots of steam. Today nonconformists from cross-dressers to Catholics are embraced by party officials — the first ruling Communists anywhere to celebrate Christmas. Catholics and gays are even allowed to evangelize, as long as they do not allow themselves to become platforms for dissent.

What constitutes dissent in a country still under the strict control of the Communist Party is far from clear. But it is obvious that Cuba is changing dramatically. On any given day, La Epoca, the largest dollar store in Havana, is packed with people perusing everything from American brand-name hair coloring to disposable diapers. Everyone on the island either has dollars or wants them. Not unlike the wild market forces that were unleashed in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, supply and demand in Cuba are already rushing to meet.

They don’t always do so respectably. Stimulated by rising demand, mainly from foreigners, prostitution has become commonplace. Cuba is now second only to Southeast Asia as a sex tourism destination. To advertise their services, some professionals wear huge platform heels, even on the beach. More than a few there and elsewhere look like teenagers. In Old Havana, near the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard, I saw one girl, maybe 14, sporting bright green Spandex; she stood wantonly near two uniformed Cuban police.

The island is reaching a new equilibrium as it metamorphoses into a service economy while the productive capacity of the state steadily wanes. Take the island’s brain drain. Though the government makes available no relevant statistics, many of the country’s top professionals have left in recent years, while others have stayed but found other livelihoods. I met a Cuban nuclear physicist and his wife, a doctor, in Bogotá. In Cuba, I rented rooms from families led by a former mechanical engineer and a chemistry professor.

Many students, too, are leaving school as the steady exodus from traditional employment continues. People who can leave the island usually go. Anyone who wants to fly must first collect enough bribe money to negotiate an exit visa. Far more Cubans have paddled out on makeshift wooden rafts. Nearly every Cuban one meets has a relative in Florida, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States. Most Cubans at least know of someone, too, who died at sea.

Among those who make it, many send back remittances to family members left behind. In 1997, a United Nations study estimated that they totaled around $800 million a year. Most of the dollars that reach the island eventually wind up in state stores like La Epoca. So far the government has maintained its monopoly on foreign consumer goods, and their sales to Cubans earn more for the state now than even foreign sales of the island’s main commodity, sugar.

Lots of state goods, materials and other resources, however, are also flowing away from Cuba. Shadowy street hustlers sell boxes of quality Cohiba cigars (or sometimes only harsh imitations) for far less than they would cost in government stores. Diesel fuel, which costs 35 cents a liter in a legal transaction with a government supplier, can be bought on the black market for as little as five cents a liter.

Across the island, Cubans are pilfering government stockpiles like never before. “They know what’s going on,” said one source who has dealt with party officials. “How could anyone not see it?”

But Fidel Castro’s regime is one that, in the past, did not tolerate corruption. Back in the 1980s, Castro even privately lambasted the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for taking with their own hands from what became widely know as their ” piñata.” Today in Cuba, though Castro still discourages Communist Party members from conspicuous consumption, an unknown number of officials have their own hands inside Cuba’s piñata, which is anything on the island owned by the state. Every day Cubans steal more such candy, while all such theft is only the system’s loss. As long as most of the dollars, however, still eventually find their way to stores like La Epoca, party officials don’t seem to care.

It would be foolish to flag this trend as a sign of Castro’s imminent fall. Now 72, he looks more and more like a stubborn old commander in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel who outlasts everyone. Castro’s old enemy, voluble Miami expatriate Jorge Mas Canosa, died last year.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how the new equilibrium could be self-sustaining over time. The rank corruption that allows it to take place is steadily eroding the social gains of the revolution along with the legitimacy of the state. Despite whatever other criticism one might have of the revolution, Cuba under Castro did succeed like few other developing countries in promoting health services, raising literacy rates and educating its population. Castro also, for better or worse, nationalized private property and produced a society without anyone who was either extremely rich or poor.

Today, however, the quality of all basic services provided by the state, except for those catering to tourists, is declining. At the same time, the underground spread of market forces is only watering criminal syndicates of all kinds that are just beginning to sprout. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has been slow to respond to new challenges like taxation as well as free-market regulation and law enforcement control. New kinds of transactions now occur daily, like the sale of cocaine. Once unheard of on the street in Cuba, it is now available on the Malecon like nearly everything else.

Beneath the veneer of a communist system, the basest kind of capitalist decadence is spreading like mold. Everyone in Cuba, of course, can see it, and the Communist Party youth, especially, has even begun denouncing the fungus out loud. Young Communists often invoke Che, whose memory and example are still widely admired, while promoting a particularly Communist kind of moral revival. They decry the rising rate of prostitution, which they blame on individuals making poor moral choices. Apparently few of these youthful idealists have been to Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, which blames the prostitution that flourished before Castro’s takeover on capitalist decadence and the harsh choices it forced upon young Cuban women.

Che’s New Man was not expected to go for prostitution. But he wasn’t expected to look like Dianna, either. Though she won the last two lip-syncing contests back to back, some of her detractors claim that she had an unfair advantage. At both competitions, Dianna’s supporters, many of whom she knows from the hospital where she is being treated for AIDS, dominated the audience. The detractors say that their raucous applause may have unduly influenced the judges. Nonsense, says Dianna, CDR No. 12’s reigning queen.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Where’s the Brief

Congressman Robert Torricelli is Washington’s most aggressive anti-Castro politician, even though 90 percent of his northern New Jersey district is non-Hispanic (mostly Italian, Jewish, or Irish descent) and less than 2 percent is Cuban. These Cubans have yet to organize even one demonstration against Castro. But recently people have begun to demonstrate against Torricelli. Even The Bergen Record, his county’s paper, has begun to question his stance: “It is an odd twist, perhaps, that Torricelli should find himself leading the offensive against Castro,” reports Thomas Moran. “He represents a district that is just 10 percent Hispanic, yet he is a champion for anti-Castro voters nationwide.”

Anti-Castro groups gave Torricelli $26,750 for his re-election in 1992, and about $10,000 so far this year. He has already secured the powerful Cuban vote based in Hudson County, adjoining his district, should he ever seek statewide office. And if he entertains higher ambitions, he can count on help from the Miami Cuban exile community’s hard-line leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, as one of his biggest fans. “He is presidential material,” Mas Canosa told the Record. “You have dinner and drinks with him, and you come to know him. There are very few people who have his sense of purpose, of direction, and destiny. He has been called for a bigger mission.”

Torricelli defends his Cuba interest by saying that he is motivated by principle and commitment to a democratic ideal. Indeed, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, he has been an active supporter of human rights in Latin America. During his first campaign in 1982, he criticized the Salvadoran government’s abuses. (His current companion in Englewood, Bianca Jagger, was once an activist on El Salvador.)

Later, like many of his colleagues, Torricelli questioned the way U.S. officials handled the 1989 murders of sic Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Shortly after the killings, U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland implicated El Salvador’s High Command and its Chief of Staff, Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, in testimony to the F.B.I. But State Department officials buried the affidavit for nine months, and, when it was “discovered,” claimed that the F.B.I. had bullied Buckland, a Special Forces Green Beret, into making a false statement. Last year, after the United Nations Truth Commission found that Ponce himself had ordered the murders, the official U.S. response went something like, “Gee whiz, whaddaya know?”

Torricelli, however, expressed outrage and promised to investigate whether U.S. officials had committed perjury when testifying to Congress about that and other crimes. Eighteen months later, no such investigation or hearing has occurred. When asked why, Torricelli declined to comment. He made a promise to principle and to the people in his district. But so far he has shown more loyalty to the Cuban vote outside it.